In what may be called “normal times,” organizations would perform strategic planning prior to implementing a systematic telework program. Due to the pandemic, telework is being implemented out of necessity in many organizations. However, strategic planning is still needed to ensure that long-term telework is effective and productive for an organization.
So, what is strategic planning for telework? At the core, strategic planning includes determining who should telework and mapping out the how, what, where, and when, as well as the changes in the organization that will be needed to support effective telework.
Who Should Telework?
Telework Eligible Positions
When considering who should telework, the first step should always be to conduct an objective assessment to determine which positions should be deemed “telework eligible” in your organization. These are positions in which the duties could be successfully carried out from a home office or other remote location without negatively affecting organizational operations or employee performance.
Following are some factors to consider when determining if a position should be considered telework eligible:
- Does the position require daily use of and/or access to confidential data that cannot be adequately secured from a remote location?
- Does the position require daily interaction with members of the public?
- Does the position require daily face-to-face meetings with colleagues or clients?
- Does the position require daily use of specialized equipment or machinery that cannot be used remotely?
- Is the work “portable?”
If the answer to the first four questions is “no” and the answer to the final question is “yes,” it is possible the position may be able to be classified as telework eligible. Note the use of the word daily in the first four questions. Even if the position requires some access to confidential data, some interaction with the public, some face-to-face meetings, and some specialized equipment, this does not mean that the position should not be considered telework eligible. The position may be designated as telework eligible for a certain number of days per week or per pay period.
Telework Eligible Employees
Once determining that a position is telework eligible, the second step is determining which employees should be telework eligible. Telework is not suitable for all people. The phrase “just because they can doesn’t mean they should” comes to mind here, as well as the conventional wisdom that past performance is generally the best predictor of future performance. For example, if an employee has had timeliness or attendance issues in the traditional office, these issues are likely to continue, and perhaps be magnified, in a telework arrangement. Some employees simply work better with more direct supervision, while others thrive in environments that provide more autonomy.
So how do you begin to evaluate individual suitability for telework? In addition to reviewing past attendance and performance records, it is generally helpful to gather input from the employees themselves on their preferences, needs, and expectations. In smaller organizations, one-on-one interviews could be conducted. The following types of questions could be asked during the interviews:
- How are you adjusting to telework?
- How is your productivity compared to when you worked in the office?
- What do you miss about the office environment?
- What have you gained through telework?
- What arrangements have you made to set yourself up for productive telework (physical office setting, childcare, etc.)?
- Would you like to continue to telework? If so, how many days per week or pay period?
- What help or additional resources and equipment are needed to make telework more effective?
- Do you have concerns about long-term telework?
Interviewing employees using these and other similar questions can help provide clarity about how well telework may fit specific individuals in your organization.
Frequency of Telework
By blending the analysis of telework eligible positions and telework eligible employees, a picture starts to form of who should telework. The next step is to determine how often each position or employee should be able to telework. The organization will need to decide how often employees should be in the office not only to perform their job duties but also to align with corporate culture and values. Some organizations rely on more frequent face-to-face collaboration than others. In making this determination on frequency, it’s important to weigh the utility of videoconferencing and cloud-based apps versus in-person interaction, especially during times of social distancing.
There are generally no hard and fast rules as far as frequency is concerned. A thorough analysis of space-saving opportunities that balance telework with time in the office will help an organization arrive at a telework arrangement that meets the needs of both the organization and the individual employee.
What to do in Larger Organizations
In larger organizations, it is often not possible to interview every employee. In these cases, I would recommend a four-step approach. This approach could be implemented in-house or by outside consultants:
- Hold a town hall meeting via videoconference. This can be performed as one group for mid-sized companies or by operational division for large organizations. The premise of a town hall meeting is to announce that you will be making upcoming strategic decisions in your organization regarding telework. You are announcing this to everyone because you value their input and would like them to be an active participant in shaping successful telework practices.
- Conduct an online survey. You can use SurveyMonkey or a similar tool to survey all employees about their telework experience, desire to continue teleworking, and the additional support or training they need. Most of the questions should be multiple choice or scale-based (e.g., strongly agree, agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree, strongly disagree) so that the results can be quickly compiled into summary information. Additional context about telework could be gained by including one or two open-ended questions where employees can write about their telework needs or experiences.
- Conduct focus groups. Once the survey information has been compiled, the results should be analyzed to look for trends or patterns that may help inform telework decisions. These observations often require further follow-up and probing to uncover the how, what, or why behind the responses. In large organizations, it’s helpful to conduct focus groups of five to eight representative personnel per division to review targeted survey information and to solicit feedback about the results. Such focus groups can yield valuable insight into the culture of the organization, resistance to change, and further understanding of the survey results. The information gathered during focus groups should be compiled at a summary level without any specific comments attributed to any one individual.
It should be noted that while resistance will likely be experienced to some degree during the focus groups, resistance itself is common and does not need to be seen as a negative factor or as a roadblock to implementation. Resistance generally indicates some type of underlying anxiety of the unknown. By conducting focus groups, you provide the opportunity for employees to voice these concerns in a non-threatening forum. It’s important for the focus group facilitator to be highly trained in conducting focus groups so that the input is received without judgment or coercion. The very act of expressing resistance goes a long way in helping employees feel heard, and can help decision-makers address concerns when communicating details about the program to employees.
- Meetings with management. Based on the results of the survey and focus groups, meetings should be conducted with management and key stakeholders to present the findings of the survey and focus groups. These meetings form the foundation of strategic planning as the managers gain a sense of employee preferences and expectations. Guidance should be provided on potential telework scenarios, specific key benefits to the organization or division, additional training and technology needs, and whether the employees need more support from management. Manager input and reactions should be obtained during these meetings. As with the employee focus groups, it is likely that some form of resistance may be experienced on the concept of extended telework, especially as it relates to managing remote employees. The meetings are a time to gather preferences and input, but not to persuade or rebut any of the concerns that are raised. Once again, the meeting facilitator should be skilled at gathering input without bias or coercion.
Throughout the process of establishing a telework program, it’s important that employees are engaged and that they feel that they have input into the process. This will help them feel more connected to the policies and practices implemented in your telework program.
Compiling the Strategic Plan
The results of the interviews, survey, focus groups, and management meetings can now be used to develop a list of recommendations for effectively implementing long-term telework in your organization. To accomplish this, a cross-sectional team should be assembled with leadership from management, human resources, information technology, and facilities. Although space is often an afterthought, it is vital to evaluate the impact of telework on space needs early in the process. This will help your organization not only save money on rent and associated space costs, but to reconfigure spaces to best meet the needs of a more mobile workforce that is telework-enabled. It may also be a good idea to include representative employees on this team so that they can help champion the program and relay viewpoints to and from other employees.
The cross-sectional team should review the results of the interviews, survey, focus groups, and manager meetings and compile a list of recommendations covering the following areas:
- Productivity – Are your employees currently productive through telework and how can productivity be improved?
- Equipment and Technology – How effective are the current technology and systems being used by employees for telework, and do employees require any additional technology to be more effective?
- Communication – Do your employees feel that there is effective communication for teleworkers in your organization? How can communication be improved?
- Policies – Are there any policies related to telework that should be adopted or modified? How should telework be rolled out and monitored? Which positions and employees will be deemed telework eligible, and at what frequency level?
- Training – Do employees require training to become more effective at telework? What types of training should be provided, and through which methods?
- Space – What space modifications should be made to accommodate the telework program?
The team should discuss the recommendations and prioritize them. Note that some recommendations may require rough order of magnitude cost estimates (e.g., equipment and technology, training, and space projects in particular).
The priority order should be strategic. Which recommendations are the most critical in the short term? Which recommendations can be implemented quickly with little or no cost? Which recommendations require a longer planning and budgeting horizon to implement? These questions should be considered when strategically prioritizing the recommendations. Once the recommendations have been prioritized, reviewed by management, and approved, they can be used to develop an action plan for implementation.
Don’t Forget Change Management
Telework represents a significant operational and cultural change in an organization. This change goes well beyond where employees work - it impacts how they work, communicate, and engage with the organization. For this reason, I recommend implementing a change management program throughout the strategic planning process and its implementation.
The goal of change management is to assess the impact of the proposed changes, to draw out resistance (and to deal with it in a constructive fashion), and to guide both employees and management through the transition to long-term telework.
An effective change management program can make the difference between a successful telework transition where employees feel engaged and supported versus a transition that is fraught with communication issues, disconnected employees, and hampered productivity.
Putting the Strategic in Your Planning
Although COVID came unannounced and fast-tracked telework in many organizations, it’s not too late to take a few steps back and to implement a comprehensive strategic planning process for long-term telework in your organization. It is never enough to simply plan; the plans must be carefully thought out and strategic. It takes time and effort to evaluate how telework fits into your overall organizational goals, to gather employee and manager input, to align telework policies with other areas of your organization, and to develop effective communication and implementation plans. But as the proverbial wisdom goes, if you fail to plan you are planning to fail. By engaging in comprehensive planning, your organization – and your employees – will reap the rewards for many years to come.